John Ogren didn’t aspire to become a learning leader. He wanted to be a meteorologist.
As a boy he recalls a tornado coming through his community. “It had a huge impact on me as a young lad,” he said. From that point on he was fascinated with weather — and how to protect the community from these kinds of events.
In college he studied meteorology, and he landed his first job with the National Weather Service in Appalachia in 2002. He’s been moving up the ranks ever since.
Ogren honed his skills tracking tornadoes in the Midwest and was later promoted to warning coordinator at the NWS office in Wichita, Kansas. In that role he got to interface with public leaders, emergency management agencies, the Red Cross and other disaster organizations to help them prepare for storm events and keep their communities safe. At the time, NWS was moving in to a new digital era, installing Doppler radar, new satellites and other technology that enhanced its ability to predict weather, and Ogren was at the forefront. “I loved monitoring storms and tornadoes and issuing warnings that would protect lives,” he said.
And he was good at it. Ogren was eventually promoted to national warning coordinator in Washington, D.C., where he became the “Disaster Duke” for the nation, setting policy and working with Federal Emergency Management Agency on disaster preparedness. “It was my dream job,” he said.
So he was as surprised as anyone when he became NWS’ top choice for its first chief learning officer.
Training Came Naturally
While working in the district, Ogren spent a lot of time developing training for storm spotters, emergency management personnel and community groups on how to react in a storm crisis. It wasn’t his primary job, but he discovered he had a knack for understanding what people needed from a learning perspective and how to provide it. “I’m not an instructional designer, but I’m interested in the process,” he said.
In 2010, he was promoted to director of the NWS training center in Kansas and happily returned to his Midwestern roots. Ogren thrived in the role, creating new modules and content for NWS employees and stakeholders. Over the next few years he slowly began to shift the learning culture in the organization, and to push learning beyond technical skills.
It set a new priority for learning so that in 2015, when NWS went through a reorganization, the senior leadership all agreed the organization needed a CLO to “address all of the development needs of the workforce,” said Mary Erickson, deputy director of NWS.
Ogren had pushed for the role to be created — but he didn’t want it for himself because it would mean returning to Washington. If the CLO was truly a C-suite position, the leadership felt the role belonged at headquarters, he said.
He was clearly the best person for the job, but Ogren wasn’t willing to leave Kansas. It also made more sense for the CLO to be in Kansas where the primary NWS training center is housed, said Leroy Spayd, portfolio coordinator and deputy CLO for NWS. The executive team ultimately agreed that it made sense for the CLO to be in Kansas, so Ogren took the job.
“He still travels to D.C. a lot,” Spayd said. “But being based in Kansas allows him to keep his hand on the pulse of learning in the organization.”
Everyone Deserves to Learn
Ogren was already fully embedded in the training culture at NWS, but as CLO he ramped up his efforts and focused on transforming the way NWS thinks about learning as an integral piece of the employee experience.
When he first got involved in training, courses focused mainly on technical and science skills — teaching people to use radar equipment and to maintain their credentials. But Ogren and his team felt that approach was too limited. To foster a strong learning culture, he felt that training had to touch every employee, and that his team should deliver soft skills as well as technical skills.
“John broadened our training offerings beyond the science to include our mission, culture and who we are,” Spayd said. “He is thinking about all of the learning needs across the organization.”
One of Ogren’s biggest initial goals was to expand leadership training to everyone in a leading role. “Leadership is a behavior, not a solution,” he said. It shouldn’t be a course taught to someone who is already struggling in a new role, which is often the case when technical experts get promoted to leadership roles. Instead, he argues that leadership development should be taught early in everyone’s career, because at one point or another “we are all leaders.”
In response, his team expanded the leadership academy to include courses for early and midcareer professionals to ensure that as employees move up the career ladder their leadership skills evolve as well as their technical skills. They also added peer-to-peer leadership development efforts, a mentoring program, and a new-hire orientation course that everyone, from entry-level staff to executive new hires, have to complete as part of their onboarding. “The course lets them know who we are and why we do the work we do,” Ogren said.
To emphasize the importance of this course, someone from the executive team attends every new-hire class to speak to the employees and reinforce the organizational commitment to learning. Erickson, who frequently attends these classes, marvels at the way Ogren engages participants. “He tells them stories about his early career, how he identified with the NWS mission, and about past supervisors who helped him course correct,” she said. “His rapport with every class of students is amazing.”
Ogren’s team has also developed dozens of online modules covering compliance issues and introducing trainees to information about new satellites, radars and forecasting techniques. The modules are backed up by job aids built into the tools. For example, if someone is struggling to read a satellite image, they can right-click and a job aid pops up. The goal is to make sure people have access to whatever training they need. “We want to give people more opportunities to refresh and build on their skills throughout their careers,” said Jeff Zeltwanger, chief of the NWS leadership academy division.
Ogren has made that happen. Zeltwanger noted that before Ogren was made CLO, the Leadership Academy was a part-time gig without the necessary resources to meet the organization’s needs. “John articulated that we need to make training a corporate function with dedicated resources to bring training to people throughout the organization,” Zeltwanger said. “It is because of him that I’m in the position I’m in.”
You Gotta Pay to Play
Along with changing the type of content being delivered, Ogren’s team has also had to adapt to a completely new way of budgeting for their programs. As part of the 2015 reorganization, training is now funded by each of the organization’s five divisions, which are required to pay for any course they participate in.
“It’s caused us to run it like a business,” Ogren said. This new approach makes his life a lot more complicated and requires constant communication between the learning group and division leaders about what training they want and what it will cost them. But the shift has delivered a lot of benefits. “It was easier when they just handed out money,” Ogren said. “But it has resulted in our budget doubling.”
It also ensures every sponsor has skin in the game. “If they want their people trained, they know they need come up with the money,” he said. If they are forced to pay for training they are more invested in ensuring their people get value from the program, and in turn Ogren’s team is held accountable for delivering value-driven content.
That caused his team to think more strategically about how to measure the impact of learning, which resulted in a project to inventory the organization’s core competencies and to tie proof of those competencies to quantifiable measures of performance and promotion decisions.
Ogren is quick to point out that completing a class doesn’t mean someone is suddenly competent. “They need to demonstrate a change in behavior,” he said. “That’s the difference between training and learning.”
To ensure training is having the desired consequence, he encourages managers to talk with employees about why they are completing training and what’s expected of them, and to discuss the program after the fact to reinforce what they learned on the job.
“When we spend their money wisely it helps us build their trust,” Spayd said. And it results in a greater appreciation of the impact learning can have on their ability to meet their strategic goals. “Once they experience our training they want more,” he added. “It has become hard to keep up.”
The Language of Weather
Ogren isn’t only focused on training employees. He also aspires to simplify the way NWS communicates with the public and to provide more relevant training to city leaders, event planners, schools and other organizations that need to know what to do when a storm hits. “They don’t always understand our language and that’s OK,” he said. Instead of forcing these groups to translate hardcore science, he’s working to change the way NWS communicates with these leaders so they can make decisions about their own response plans faster and with greater confidence. “We spend a lot of time trying to educate scientists on how to speak in a language people understand,” he said. “It requires a major culture shift.”
Being the first CLO in NWS history has given Ogren the freedom and authority to shape the role, and he has benefited from strong executive support. “We all recognized that we needed to create a culture of continuous learning at NWS, but John brought the solution,” Erickson said.
Every day he works with leaders from all five of the NWS divisions to break down silos and ensure everyone has access to the same quality of learning across all mission areas. “John is an empowering leader,” Zeltwanger said. “He articulates his vision, then he trusts his people to do their jobs.”
He is equally good at convincing stakeholders to support his team when they need his help, Zeltwanger added. For example, when they initially launched the new-hire orientation, some smaller groups in NWS didn’t have the budget to put every new hire through onsite training. “John believed that everyone should have the right to come to the class,” Zeltwanger said. So he went to the CFO and fought for resources to fund travel and training so that every new hire could attend. “John leveraged his influence to make it happen.”
That’s exactly the kind of leader Erickson and her peers wanted in this role. “He’s a consummate champion of learning who can think through the challenges that others face and figure out a way to get things done,” Erickson said.